by Charles Wagner

He was a heavy-set man of about 60 years old, who was once taut and muscular, but now succumbed to the inevitable ravages of time. I looked closely at his face, which seemed to be in a permanent state of slightly squinting, perplexed puzzlement. He probably had not smiled in many years. There was no joy in his demeanor, no peace in his bones, no tranquillity in his voice. He was a man who had spent the better part of his life trying to save people from themselves and had mostly failed. Now he was desperately trying to save what was left of himself. He had wanted to change the world, to cure the ills, to settle the disputes, to mediate the conflicts, to turn this ugly and sick world into the thing of beauty that he envisioned. He had entered into the lives of people and had not emerged unscathed. Instead of bringing them up to his expectations, they had dragged him down. Now, he had nothing much left and he was tired. Very tired. Lebensmude, as the Germans say so aptly, sick of life.

He yearned for renewal, to be young again and carefree. To recapture the joy of his youth. He wanted to swim in the ocean, to roll in the grass, to swing on an old tire from a tree limb, to meet a young lady and fall in love, to walk in the park holding hands on a cool, summer night. He wanted to paint, to play music, to sing, to experience all of the sensations that he had missed in his journey to wherever he was going. But most of all, he wanted to be free. Free of the lives of the people he had known, the lives that choked him and sucked every drop of blood and joy from his countenance. He had entered into the lives of sick and ugly people, and he had not emerged unscathed. And now he was angry. Very angry.

He spoke to me in harsh tones, loud and shrill, and somewhat disjointed. Like a small explosion was taking place inside his head and little pockets of energy were emerging through tiny cracks. He was, in effect, ranting and raving.

"You are young," he said, "you cannot possibly understand. To you, it is all so simple. You have your youth, you have your health and you have your mind. You have not entangled yourself in the lives of sick people, you have not walked in my shoes. You cannot possibly know."

He became suddenly more somber and thoughtful. "I have tried to love those whose paths I crossed. For me, love is the only way. To love, to sacrifice. It is the highest ideal that a person can aspire to".

I now became annoyed at his attitude. "You are a fool", I replied. "You have chosen your fate, you have walked in the pasture and you have stepped in the offal. No one forced you to do this, you did it of your own free will. Even I, at my young age, know that you cannot immerse yourself too deeply in the lives of men and women. It is like a maelstrom, a whirlpool, that has sucked you in. You have tried to cure what cannot be cured. It is the universal sickness and we are born with it. You are a fool."

Melinda Sanchez came to El Paso from the Chihuahua province of Mexico. She had been born in New York City and had an advantage not available to most mexicans in her town, an American passport. Melinda had left New York when she was four years old with her mother, who was deported as an undesirable alien. It was something to do with some contraband that had been seized in her boyfriend's apartment. Her mother had served 8 months in the Women's House of Detention in Manhattan and then was sent home to Mexico. Melinda returned with her to the family's home town where she grew up in poverty and deprivation, scratching out a living in the barren fields near the Chihuahua mountains with her six brothers and three sisters. Now her mother was gone and there was nothing to keep Melinda in Chihuahua. She scraped together what money she had saved and bought a bus ticket to El Paso.

Frank had been discharged from the United States Army in 1968 after serving two years in Viet-Nam. He was a man who understood duty and responsibility, and he served honorably in a war that he secretly hated. "Why are we here?", he would ask himself. "To kill yellow people in their own country?" Somehow it just didn't seem right to him. We were saving these people, he had been told, but he never really knew what we were saving them from. He was separated from the Army at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and drifted for several months, taking odd jobs and living in dilapidated rooming houses. He had drifted to El Paso where his military background helped him to land a job with the INS. He went to work on the line in the spring of1969.

He understood duty and responsibility and performed his duties honorably in a war that he secretly hated. "Why are we here"?, he would ask himself. "To send little brown people back to their own country where they faced hunger, starvation and poverty"? Somehow, it just didn't seem right to him. At night they would chase the ghostly shadows trying to cross the river in leaky boats, bucking the raging currents, women with young babies, drug smugglers, old men, children. Sometimes they made it, sometimes they didn't. Often in the morning, they would find bodies washed up on the shore, those who weren't lucky enough to make it across. Or maybe they are the lucky ones, he thought. At least they are in a better place and at peace.

In the bars in Chihuahua, were they often drank, he would sit beside men and women that he had sent back just the previous day. How stupid, he thought, we catch them, send them back, and they just keep coming over again. I guess hunger is a powerful thing. He thought about going to Canada, where the working conditions were much better. Canadians just drove up and were waved across into the United States. It just didn't seem right to him. I guess having white skin is a definite advantage.

Frank met Melinda at the El Paso border station. She had come on the afternoon bus from Mexico. Normally, American passports just walked through, but there was something about her that caught his eye. She had large brown eyes and jet black hair that hung loosely around her face. He took her passport, and as he asked her the usual questions, he looked deeply into her eyes. It seemed to him that he could see his own face, reflected from the glistening pools. He sensed in her a sadness, that comes from years of spiritual and emotional neglect. She was young and strong, but her youth was being wasted away by the ravages of her life. She was like a seed that had fallen on barren ground, with no water or food. It just didn't seem right to him. As he signed her customs receipt, he was overcome by a sudden wave of joy and sadness. As he handed back the passport he said to her "Is there anything you need, Senora?" He had never said that to anyone else before, but it seemed right to say it now. "I must look for a hotel", she said, "I have no place to stay." He took a piece of paper out of his pocket and wrote down an address. "This place is clean and safe, and it is nearby. It will be a lot easier than searching for someplace on your own. I know the owner, tell him that Frank sent you and he'll see that you're taken care of." She picked up her small bag and headed for the door. "Gracias, Senor, gracias." Frank watched her as she left the station and headed out into the dark. He turned away and went back to the line.

Frank couldn't get Melinda out of his mind. Nor did he want to. He harbored fantasies of walking with her in the park on a cool summer evening, of listening to music, reciting poetry to her, watching her toss her coal-black hair off her face with a quick twist of her head. He yearned to be young again, to recapture the passion of youth that she represented. But he was probably 20 years older than her, and he reminded himself of his father's words; "There's no fool like an old fool".

A few days passed, and Frank got up the courage to act on his obsession. He headed for the rooming house on Laurel Boulevard that he had sent her to. Richie, his war buddy, who owned the place was behind the desk. He told Frank that she had been there for several days and that she had gotten a job at the tavern across the street. The tavern was much like the one in Mexico that he frequented in its outward appearance, but a world away in other respects. A large sign hung over the bar that was red, white and blue and proclaimed "America for Americans". In the booths and on the stools, the talk often focused on the "mexican problem" and how "these people" were sucking us dry, taking away our jobs and sponging off welfare, not paying any taxes and committing crimes. It didn't seem to bother the owner that Melinda was mexican and they talked openly of shooting wetbacks as they crossed the river, as if they were coyotes.

He saw Melinda several times over the next couple of weeks, each time inquiring about her situation. He helped her with her English, and he helped her fill out the papers for her social security card and food stamps. She began to grow more confident and spoke of possibly saving enough money to buy a car and get a driver's license. Melinda and Frank soon became friends. She seemed always interested in what he said and took his advice in most matters. They went dancing in local clubs and drank tequila in the local clubs in downtown El Paso. By February, Melinda had moved into Frank's apartment on Alameda Avenue, just across from the railroad tracks. Melinda seemed to be totally devoted to Frank and took care of the house and cooked wonderful meals of tasty mexican food. She kept the small apartment spotless and went to work each day in the tavern just a few blocks away.

Frank began to feel the vigor and passion of his youth returning. He slept well, and didn't mind getting up and going to work. Melinda was like a breath of fresh air in his life. Frank had spent the past four years pretty much isolated from the warmth and joy of female companionship. At night he would lie in bed while she slept, just looking at her, thinking about how much she meant to him and thanking God that she had come into his life. At night, when he was chasing the shadows on the Rio Grande, he thought of Melinda, and all of the other Melindas wasting away in the poor little villages and towns of Chihuahua. Such a pity, he thought, such a waste. Life just wasn't fair at all. It just didn't seem right to him. He would come home late, when she was asleep and he would quietly slip into bed and gently put his arms around her until the first rays of morning sun streamed through the window.

Frank and Melinda were sitting on the banks of the Rio Grande on a warm September evening. The sun had not yet set and the golden rays were glistening on the swirling waters of the river. The colors were beautiful; bronze, yellow, olive and russet. The water was flowing chaotically around a clump of rocks near the bank and spray occasionally burst onto the banks. On one level, it was totally unpredictable and the water could take any number of different paths as it flowed around the rocks. It would be impossible to predict which path a floating object would take as it passed this point in the river. But it had a kind of serene order to it as the various pathways became clear to him and a certain order emerged from the chaos.

Life itself had this same kind of appearance. On one level, it appears chaotic as people move about and change their jobs, their homes, their loves. A single event can change a person's life forever, and it was impossible to anticipate or control these events. Melinda was one such fortuitous event in his life, that had changed his life in a dramatic fashion. But if you looked deeper, you saw certain patterns emerging as the chaos slowly went out of focus and the orderliness became evident. People live, they die, they marry, they love, they hate, they laugh, they cry and they get hurt. Not much ever seems to change if you step back from your own personal situation and view the great panorama of existence. Surely the world is unfolding as it should, thought Frank, whether or not it was clear to him how or why.

Melinda had gotten up and taken her shoes and stockings off and was wading in the shallow pools of swirling water. As he watched her longingly, his soul was nearly exploding. He was standing at the very center of the wild heart of life. She was like a sea-bird that had just alighted as she stepped gracefully among the rocks and the swirling rivulets of water. Her skirts were pulled up above her knees, to avoid the spray of water that was dancing around her feet. Her legs were bronze and smooth and the tiny droplets of water glistened like diamonds on her skin. Her hair was blowing carelessly in the warm breezes as it fell here and there around her bare shoulders. He watched her for a few minutes but he could not see her face. He got up and began to walk towards her and as he did, she turned her head around slowly. As the setting sun splashed across her face, he could see the tears were streaming down.

"I was thinking about Luis and Roberto", she said. I haven't seen Roberto in 5 years. Luis is dead. They are my brothers and they came north to the San Joaquin valley to work in the orchards. For several years they wrote to Mama and I and sent what money they could. It was very little. After a while it became impossible for them to continue working in the orange groves. It was like they were working for nothing. They were paid about 15 dollars a day to work from sunrise to sunset. The bosses took away money for food, for a place to sleep, for union dues, and if they got sick, that was just about the end of it. There was no medical care, no insurance, no hospitals. They were afraid to ask for any help because they were illegals".

"A man came by and said he was recruiting workers to go further north to Fresno county. The pay was many times greater than what they were making in the orchards. There was a deserted ranch in the desert just south of Fresno. Luis knew that there were no orchards in Fresno county, but the pay was good and they were desperate. Hunger is a powerful thing, I guess. Luis had never smelled ether before but he soon learned that he and Roberto were involved in a drug processing operation. Each day, the men in fancy cars would come and take away the product and pay them. They slept in the back of the building with the smell of ether a constant annoyance. They were alone all day, working in the lab, processing the white powder and wondering if it would kill them, or make them sick".

"One day, there was an explosion. Luis was asleep and was burned in the fire. Roberto carried his body out into the desert and buried him in a grove of cactus. I never saw Roberto again. We got a package in the spring with Luis' religious medals and a letter from Roberto saying that he was sorry. That was the last we heard from him."

Frank listened intently to Melinda's story. He felt sad that desperation should drive people to these extents. All Luis and Roberto wanted for themselves was a few dollars in their pockets, a job to go to and a little dignity. They hoped to find this in America, where there was opportunity for anyone who was willing to work hard and be productive. Instead, they found sickness, loneliness and death. People said that they were sucking America dry. But it was they who were being sucked dry, made to work long hours for little pay and to be in constant fear of being discovered and deported. Their illegal status made them live in constant fear, willing to ignore their sickness and the abuse they endured. They were afraid to take advantage of any type of services, such as police, hospitals or schools for fear of deportation. Meanwhile, the streets of New York are filled with Dominicans, Israelis, Jamaicans, Irish, Indians and Pakistanis who were here as visitors who had overstayed their visas, on work permits, or legal aliens. It just didn't seem right to him. There were hundreds of Border Patrol officers, just like him, working the line each night, catching the poor bastards trying to cross the river with their families and children, with their only possessions the clothes on their backs . Some of them made it, most of them didn't. Many drowned in the river, or died in the desert where they were packed by the dozens into tractor-trailers for the ride to the north. Meanwhile, there were less than a dozen INS officers to deal with the thousands of illegal aliens in New York. It just didn't seem right to him.

Melinda threw her arms around Frank and sobbed softly. "My three other brothers have told me that they want to try to come to America. I hope they do not try. I'm afraid they will also die, or worse. Whatever the north gives to a man, it exacts a price in return. They are better off in Mexico, where they can farm and make enough to buy food. It is a poor existence, but there, a man is free of fear. They can sleep at night, even if they are hungry."

"They would have a better chance if they could get far away from here", said Frank. If they could go to Chicago, or New York where they could be less afraid, where there is no Border Patrol." He seemed surprised at having said this, since each night he chased the shadows and sent back these very same people. But the shadows, had no faces, no identity, and he had no reason to care about them. It was just his job, and he knew his duty and he carried it out without thought. But these people, Melinda's brothers, he had never met them, but they were real. They were almost...family. And he wanted more than anything for Melinda to be happy.

It was a cool night on the river, and the moon was full. Not many would be foolish enough to try to cross tonight. Frank had driven two hours and arrived in Guadalupe Bravos just before dawn. He pulled into a small diner and went inside. The fry-cook was standing by the end of the counter drinking coffee. There was a man asleep in the corner booth. Frank ordered a cup of coffee and a corn muffin. After about fifteen minutes, he returned to the truck and lit a cigarette. He took out his government issue revolver and tapped gently three times on the glass partition that separated the cab from the rear of the truck. His signal was answered with three taps on the glass from the rear of the truck He started the engine and rolled out onto the highway and headed north towards El Paso. He checked his pocket to make sure he had the plane tickets and the other documents that would guarantee safe passage to New York City.

There was a narrow part of the river, just south of San Eliziaro where the water was usually not more than a few inches deep. Frank had driven the big truck across there many times, in the dry season, when the water was low. It was a popular spot for illegals to cross and was usually checked regularly by the Border Patrol. Frank knew well that the night shift would probably be gone by 7:00 a.m. and the day shift was not due until after 8:00 a.m. He turned right onto a narrow dirt road and then over the bank and along the river's edge. The water was a little higher than he expected, but it was still passable. He eased the big 4x4 into the shallow river and began negotiating the rocks. He knew where the deep spots and the shallow spots were and carefully inched his way forward.

About half way across, disaster struck. He could not get the truck to stay in 4 wheel drive mode and the rear wheels began to dig into the muddy river bed. His progress slowed to a halt. He knew the only way to get unstuck was to get the men out of the back to lighten the load on the rear wheels. He jumped out of the cab and ran to the back. "Get out, muchachos", he yelled softly in Spanish. "When I turn the wheels, lift up on the back of the truck". The men understood and grabbed the back fender as Frank returned to the cab. He gently nudged the truck into drive, holding his head out the door and looking back to check the wheels. The men were lifting valiantly and the truck began to inch forward and grabbed at the muddy river bed. As the truck slowly began to move forward, the bright sunlight glistened on the swirling waters of the river. As the men jumped back into the moving truck, the shirt of one man caught on the fender. As he pulled at it, to free himself, Frank looked back and saw the tape across his waist.

Frank pulled the truck up onto the bank on the American side of the river. He stopped by the side of the road and reached down and pulled out his revolver. He walked around to the back of the truck and pulled back the tarp. He was not sure what he was going to do and the revolver hung in his hand pointing towards the ground. The three men were huddled together under the canvas. Frank looked at them long and hard. They were scared, he could tell. Their faces spoke to him in a language that is born of desperation. He was sworn to uphold the law but he just stood there looking hard at these boys. The one looked just like Melinda and was obviously kin. It was like the final scene in Casablanca. Could this amount to anything more than a hill of beans in this crazy world? What about the tons of drugs that came into the country every day in cargo shipments? The seizures the we make are just the tip of the iceberg. How naive we were to think that we could somehow have any effect at all on the flow of drugs into the U.S. It was a fool's errand, and only the ignorant and the stupid got caught. It just didn't seem right to him. Besides, thought Frank, a man who turns his back on his family, well he just ain't no good. Frank pulled the tarp back over the men and returned his revolver to its holster. He got back in the cab of the truck and continued north towards El Paso. At the airport, he turned the tickets and the documents over to the men and said goodbye. They spoke for the first time "Gracias, Senor...gracias".

As he was driving back home, he felt reborn. No longer would he mindlessly terrorize other human beings who wanted nothing more than what he already had. He had seen his face in their eyes and it was the human face. It was the age old struggle for dignity and for the right to live free from fear. With the poor people of this earth, I cast my fate, he thought. I cannot change the world, but I don't have to participate in making it worse. He decided that he was leaving the line.

The sun was high in the sky when he pulled up in front of his house. Melinda would probably still be asleep, since she didn't get home from work until after 4:00 a.m. He opened the door quietly and tip-toed into the house. The light was on in the bedroom and he opened the door, expecting to find her asleep. The bed was empty. He wondered where she could be and returned back to the kitchen. There was a note on the table. There were two words written on it- "I'm sorry".

I looked intently into his face but he turned his gaze downward. He looked like a man who had been broken by life. We sat alone in the dingy room for a long time, in silence. Suddenly he raised his head and his eyes fixed on mine. They were burning like hot coals and I knew that the volcano was about to erupt again. "I cared about everyone", he raged, "but no one cared about me. I have as much right to be happy as anyone else. I did all the right things and life was never fair to me. Look at me now, I'm alone and I'm sick and I just want to die."

"The world did not owe you anything", I replied, "and you didn't owe the world anything. It was your own responsibility to give meaning to your life, and to find happiness. The world is indifferent to our needs. We all need to be cared for, to be loved, to be indulged. The world is not cruel, it is uncaring. Only human beings have the capacity to care about each other. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. They are not cruel, they are just indifferent".

"It just doesn't seem right", he went on, "that life should not return the favor. Maybe I expected too much of people. I expected everyone to think like me and to act like I would have acted in that situation. I expected them to sense my needs and to provide me with what I needed. I was always disappointed...always".

"That is because you always expected something in return. You were selfish. Now you are angry because you didn't get the return on your investment that you had hoped for. There was a fundamental flaw in your thinking. You did not help people out of the goodness of your heart. There was no nobility in your gestures. You loved people because you wanted them to love you back. You helped them because you wanted their gratitude. You have no right to be angry. Your self pity is contemptible."

He glared at me long and hard. Perhaps I had gone a bit too far. I looked directly into his watery eyes. "I only wish that I was young again. I do not accept my fate gracefully. I resent every day that passes. I see nothing in my future but pain, sickness and death. I am just waiting each day for the next horrible thing that will happen to me. I cannot be saved. It is too late. I have only my dreams to keep me alive. I am walking along the beach, with the ocean waves dancing at my feet, with the blood-red sun setting on the horizon. I am walking on the street in a quiet New England village with snow gently falling and the smell of wood burning in the hearths. I look into the warm, peaceful homes and I see the families gathered around the dinner table. I am sitting under a large oak tree in a summer pasture, filled with wildflowers and buzzing with insects. I am with a young lady and we are having a picnic. I am young and strong and handsome, and I am hopelessly in love. I want to sing, to dance, to recite poetry, to listen to music. There is no anger, no hatred, no envy, no pride, no sorrow, no fear. I am at peace and time is standing still, frozen in a great crystal of beauty. I want to be here forever, because I am young and happy and free". Back To Home Page